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Lights in the Sky
First published on www.coldopenstories.com
Once the private home of a man named James Gilliland, the ranch had been transformed over the years into a mecca for UFO enthusiasts. It was called “ECETI,” Enlightened Contact With Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Bree had picked a fine time to take Linda on an overnight trip to the ranch. A coworker at Bree’s last job had raved about it. “Like Disneyland with weird woo-woo stuff” was how she described it. Granted, last night Bree had seen weird lights in the sky, but was pretty certain she could explain it once she got home to a stable internet connection. The two women headed home mid-morning. Linda scrolled through her phone, amped about the events unfolding on Reddit and Twitter. Apparently, the aliens were here, and the government had confirmed it.
Bree, Linda, and another MeetUp member named Tim had traveled four hours from home to the Ranch yesterday. Tim was in his thirties, rode, as Linda described, “a bitchin’ hog” (it was a Honda, but Bree let that go), and Linda had spent a good deal of the ride home repeatedly rolling down her window and craning her neck to squint up at the blue sky. “Just think,” she exclaimed, “they could be up there right now, and we wouldn’t even know it!” The fact that Tim insisted he didn’t see anything other than a bunch of people with necks craned, standing in a field, oohing and awing was disappointing for Linda; Bree was a little relieved she may have found a fellow skeptical believer. She tried to not assess Tim’s character too much. Instead she strived to let the learning of who Tim was flow more organically. Every man wasn’t out to destroy her, and even if Tim was too young for her to be romantically interested, he was a male she would be interacting with, maybe even be friends with, if Linda didn’t scare him off.
Tim had briefly discussed some childhood experiences he couldn’t quite wrap his head around, and Bree had a few of her own she would like to confide in someone. Tim had left that morning before they did, and as if she could read her thoughts, Linda looked up from her phone, saying, “Hey, I wonder if Tim got home alright?” She had cougared-out on Tim all the way up to the Ranch; the cringe level had been excruciating. “Maybe we should call him?” Linda, pushing sixty, looked like a fourteen-year-old girl fantasizing about the boy who sat behind her in bio. “No one calls, anymore,” Bree answered, irritated.“Just text him. He left hours before us.”
Linda sucked in her breath excitedly and spent the next few minutes tapping, backspacing, and finally triumphantly hitting send.
“There,” she sighed, staring out her window, “I just asked if he got home OK. I used the eggplant emoji, the peach and water droplets.” She gave Bree sly side-eye. Bree groaned, sending Linda into a fit of giggles, “JK, I feel like a kid again.” She stared out the window, clutching her phone and bouncing a little. “First, all those lights,” she grabbed Bree’s forearm, almost sending her into oncoming traffic, “And now, I’m texting a cute guy!”
Please, God, make her stop, Bree thought.
Linda looked suddenly worried. “Think I should tell Paul?”
Tell your husband? Bree thought grimly. Right, let him in on the fact his wife of thirty-three years was having a romance of the mind involving a man her son’s age. A man she had met in an online MeetUps group called “Paranormal, Not So Crazy, Now, Are We?” Someone they would likely never see again and who would be soon staring at a text with a puzzled “WTF?” expression. Sure, why not. She and Linda had met in that same group two months ago. They had some jolly old times in a deserted graveyard, an abandoned pizza place, and one nervous lady’s garage, desperately trying to catch a voice on tape or see a flashlight blink, like on Ghost Hunters. The point was to look very serious while doing the “investigation” and say, “Uh-huh” a lot. What you didn’t want to do was align yourself with the anxious homeowner in the garage, who seemed very concerned her husband may come home early and find them near his precious tools because, hey, you were collecting scientific data, and she was clearly off her meds. Big difference.
The fact that the group, consisting initially of twenty-three people, had dwindled to five in the first two months had everything to do with the fact it had all been a wasted effort. No voices on tape, no blinky-blinky, only silence and shadows. Bree felt the heat rise in her face at the image of how stupid they must have looked. Even the garage owner had started looking at them suspiciously. “Nah,” she shrugged off the image and replied, “Why, he’d just get jealous, nobody wants to deal with that.”
Bree tried controlling Linda’s window, rolling it back up. Linda pressed the button down without comment. Bree waited a few moments, again hit the button up, down, slightly up, and stopped with the window at mid-level. Flummoxed, Linda began to fidget, snorting something under her breath. Bree immediately rolled the window up, sweetly saying, “I’m sorry, did you say something?” Linda started to respond, pressed her lips together tightly, crossed her arms, and stared out the window. Once Bree noticed Linda had gone silent, she wondered if she was being too dismissive. The lights in the sky she had seen last night rested just below the surface of her mind and occasionally rose to the top, turning like a Rubik’s Cube. How the hell did the guy who owned that place pull that off? No visible projections and no evidence of drones. Mass hypnosis, maybe. She was reaching on that one. She herself was easily hypnotized. At the tender age of seventeen, as a very naive college freshman, she had allowed herself to be put in a light trance by a thirty-something crawler more interested in co-eds than classes.That unexpected lack of control had spooked her, and she avoided even the hypnotists working the county fair crowds, covering her ears if she walked by a performance. But there was no evidence of Gilliland intoning a litany of hypno speak to put anyone under, particularly not a large crowd. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, squinting and considering.
Linda slowly lowered her window.
Bree mentally counted to five and, resigned to having only Linda for input, she turned to her and watched a gray, taloned hand, curled and searching, slide around Linda’s headrest, then flicking a tendril of her ashy blond hair. Bree froze, hands clenched, confused. The blare of a truck horn and Linda’s shriek of “Hey!” while grabbing the wheel and pulling it under Bree’s grip woke her from her shock. A colossal semi whipped past them, so close it was amazing he didn’t take off her side mirror.
Bree braked hard and slowed, panting as she shakily steered the car off the road and into the dirt. Linda still had a hand controlling the steering wheel, and as they stopped, reached down and shifted into park. Bree was breathing hard, staring straight ahead. “Are you OK?” Linda asked worriedly. No, thought Bree, I am definitely not OK. “Yeah,” she said, blowing out a shaky laugh, “I was just listening to you, and I guess I wasn’t paying attention.” She could not look Linda in the face, knowing if that claw was still there, maybe waving at her or flipping her off, she would start shrieking and bolt out of the car and straight into traffic.
It was fifteen minutes later, and no reappearance of a claw. Bree had regained enough composure to look directly at Linda three times for almost a full minute. She was beginning to accept that she had imagined the whole claw thing. It was possible that what she had really seen was a tendril of Linda’s hair, whipping around in the wind from that damn open window. All the alien talk at the ranch last night had set her up for who knows what crazy imaginings. She did a mental stretch and shook her head. After consuming an entire bottle of cool water and endless “Are you sure you’re OK to drive?” questions from Linda, Bree felt ready to pull back onto the road. Linda couldn’t drive; she had two DUIs. Under the Influence trumped Out of Your Mind for reasons to not be controlling a two thousand-plus vehicle. Bree was damned if she would ride in the passenger seat, twitchy and itching from a gnarled claw molesting her head.
The incident slowed down Linda’s chatter. They drove on safely in the middle lane. Linda stared out the window, clutching her phone, and reached out to turn up the radio. It took all of Bree’s last nerve to not jump. Linda sang along with the Bee Gees, a Sirius channel for those who loved the seventies. “Tragedy. When you lose control and you got no soul. It’s tragedy…” Linda’s voice trailed off. She knew about four lines of every song so far. Bree mentally reduced the sound to a dull roar and tried to remember what mental health services her insurance offered. What was the co-pay for a full psych workup? What excuses would she have to come up with to get sick pay for weekly sessions? A possible full-blown hallucination was nothing to mess with. What the fuck had that been all about? She had mild anxiety before, as most people nowadays do, but not any episodes where she saw stuff. An uncomfortable memory surfaced: one of the members of the ghost hunting group, who had warned them in an ominous voice, “Be careful looking into the abyss too long, or it may look back. Being involved in the paranormal, engaging with it, usually increases weird happenings.” At the time, Bree thought that sounded great, just what she wanted. Now, trying to maintain equilibrium during an apparent full-out hallucination, she was having trouble concentrating over Linda’s rendition of “Muskrat Love”.
Linda, whose idea of aliens centered more around mutilated cattle and vague descriptions of little green men, never seemed to grasp the concept of what changes contact could make to humanity. It was no wonder they had so much friction whenever they spent more than a few hours together. Bree dared a glance over at her, what, friend? Acquaintance? She sighed. Making any new friends at her age was damn near impossible.
Bree concentrated on regulating her breath, staying in the moment, and not thinking about disembodied alien claws. What little traffic she saw on the highway home pulled ahead, and the road was empty behind them.
She reached out to lower the radio volume before glancing into her rearview mirror, seeing what was apparently a gray alien in the middle of her backseat. Its bulbous head moved slowly, side to side, in a figure-eight pattern. She jerked her eyes away, then back to the mirror. It met her gaze straight on, big, black, glistening eyes unafraid, pitch black, devoid of any discernible emotion or warmth.
A strange, clicking noise came out of its pursed mouth. What looked like a reptilian tongue poked out and seemed to be licking the air. A three-fingered hand raised, then pointed talons clicked as it seemed to wave, then leaned forward to reach for Bree. In her mind, a wind howled, and she was certain it could see straight into her soul.
To her credit, she didn’t scream or swerve. She simply looked back straight ahead, reached down with her right hand, pushed the release button on her seatbelt, slowed in a daze, and started steering off the road. Once they hit sand, she exited the vehicle, stunt woman style.
Having never jumped from a fast-moving vehicle, she was not prepared for the hard slam of the ground, experienced several times as she rolled and flipped, finally landing in a full eagle spread on her back. She lay there, with sand up her nose and dust settling in a cloud around her, not much of an issue, since she couldn’t breathe. The car, her pride and joy, continued without her. It ran full-tilt boogie into a small group of boulders. It came to a very abrupt stop, its front end crumpled into the windshield, steam rising from the wreckage. Bree coughed, spitting sand, took a couple of slow, deep breaths, and shakily raised her head. Between her splayed feet, she could see beneath the car, less than a hundred feet away, liquid streaming then pooling onto the sand. She lowered her head, waiting for the boom of an exploding car, like in the movies.
Nothing. The car engine sputtered, then went silent. It was quiet out here, with no traffic and only a soft breeze. Bree struggled up onto her elbows, still watching the car. No alien emerged, no Linda. She slowly sat up and began the painful process of standing, checking for broken bones and internal injuries, anticipating a wave of pain. She was on her feet, swaying, realizing while she hurt all over, there didn’t seem to be any real damage.
Can’t say the same for Linda, her mind remarked, mildly.
The idea of hurting, maybe killing her admittedly annoying but innocent companion was more than her brain could process. The decision to suddenly leave the roadway, and her car, had happened without conscious thought. It seemed like the best course of action at the time, given there was an alien in her backseat. She staggered towards the wreckage, bracing herself for the sight of blood and mangled human and alien body parts. Both front airbags had deployed, and she leaned in the open driver-side door, pushing the white fabric out of the way. Bree checked the back seat. Empty. Linda was slumped forward, unmoving. Bree reached across the driver’s seat to touch her shoulder. “Linda.” No response. Louder, “Linda!”. Silence.
Limping around the back of the car, really beginning to feel the results of her acrobatics now, she tugged open the passenger door, a little sticky but operable, and struggled to push Linda back against her seat. Linda’s head lolled; her eyes were closed but began to flutter open. Blood trickled down the left side of her face. “Wha-, what’s happening?” she moaned. She still clutched her cell phone in one hand, and Bree pulled it gently away. “There’s been an accident, we need to call 911,” she said, her voice sounding whispery and weak. Everything around her swam briefly as she straightened, squinting at the screen, lit up with Linda’s last text to Tim, and all those goddamn emojis, eggplant, peach, water droplets. Huh, her mind remarked, he hadn’t responded.
Bree glanced at the car, its front end embedded in unforgiving gray granite, and thought, What the fuck was a Hyundai made of, anyway, paper mâché? She then turned to brace her butt against the side of the vehicle. The world tilted, and she leaned over, taking deep breaths. Vomiting would just be the icing on this shit cake. Almost out of strength, her head pounding, she began punching the phone screen, trying to open the phone icon. Behind her, Linda continued to make sounds of distress, weakly punctuated with half-questions. Bree ignored her. At least she wasn’t dead. Still struggling to see the screen in the glaring sunlight, she held Linda’s phone closer to her face and shielded it with one cupped hand.
In the dirt beside her, a sickly gray, scaly foot materialized with three long, distinct toes. She shrieked, wildly flinging the phone into the air as she scrambled away, dropping to all fours, a nightmare becoming real as her mind tried to make her body move faster than humanly possible. Her scrabbling hands scooped sand, her feet gained yards and then lost traction until she fell, face first into hot sand. She was aware of Linda’s voice, weakly crying out, then rising into a hysterical pitch of garbled syllables. A vise grabbed her right ankle, lifted it high and began to pull her briskly backward, her face dragging a trough in the sand. She was dimly aware of seeing one of her brown moccasin shoes as she slid by it.. Linda trilled in hysterical nonsense words, wailing, her voice getting closer. Bree’s movement stopped suddenly, shirt bunched up to her collarbone, everything filled with suffocating sand. The vice dropped her leg and attached it to her shoulder, flipping her roughly onto her back. Eyes squeezed shut, fists and feet pulling up into a protective position, Bree babbled, “No, no, no”. She was dimly aware of something large standing over her. She refused to look. Silence, as a shadow moved across the red and gold blooming behind her aching eyelids, she had to look at some point, had to see. The barest eye slit revealed a large head, the face blacked out by the sun’s glare, tilting slowly. A tinkling sound, like gently shattering glass, breaking and reforming, flowed over her. It seemed to be a question. She panted, staring up and then she saw all of it.
Jagged, dark teeth lined the now elongated mouth, seeming to grin, with an owl’s beak perched above. Bottomless, blacker than black eyes wrapped around the sides of its head. Its eyes would shutter almost closed, then blink rapidly open. There were no ears, but two protrusions jutted out on the forehead. The bulbous head tilted again, and Bree could make out more of the face, tried to squeeze her eyes into blissful ignorance again, and found she could not. Instead, her eyes opened wider, her limbs loosened, and she starfished while the being studied her. The mouth sucked in and out, giving glimpses of pointed teeth and gray tongue. Saliva dripped in a long, wet string, stretching and finally plopping onto Bree’s exposed chest. The tinkling sound had ceased and was replaced with an eerie, high-pitched screech, demanding something. She was dimly aware of a wet warmth pooling under her butt, and the being jerked its head down, seeming to sniff first her face, so close, then angled down to her legs. It straightened, leaving Bree on the hot dirt, tears streaming from her eyes. As it returned to the car, long, spindly limbs moved unnaturally; the feet seemed to step on top of the sand without sinking. Faintly, Linda’s voice whispered, “We are safe, we are quiet.” Bree was able to shut her eyes again, as well as move her fingers, but stayed still and silent. She couldn’t help anyone now. There was a sudden release of all fear and care, as warmth spread throughout her body. She relaxed. Everything was fine. You are safe, you are quiet, a voice snaked through her mind. I am safe, I am quiet, she repeated silently and smiled.
After an eternity of silence, Bree struggled to her feet for the second time that afternoon, standing alone and looking blearily around for the lost moccasin. She saw it a good fifty feet away and trudged to pick it up, tugging down her shirt, her body aching, her mind so empty, so clean. She stumbled to the car where Linda was still seatbelted in the wreck. She sank to the ground in the open car door, clutching Linda’s right calf, and leaning her aching head into her lap. A hand softly stroked her head and she heard a whisper, “Shhh, it’s OK.”
The euphoria was fading, but there was no blind panic to replace it, just a low humming. It seemed to come from the air, but then Bree realized it was coming from Linda. The chorus to “Muskrat Love” by the Captain and Tenille. She joined Linda in a croaking voice after a few bars before beginning to laugh, then choke back a sob until they were both wheezing and crying.
That is how the nice man in the F150 truck found them a half hour later. He approached cautiously, calling out, “Hello? Is anyone hurt?” He asked them both some basic questions before calling 911, who told him to monitor but not move the victims. Assistance had been dispatched. From her seat on the ground, Bree overheard the next call he made. It sounded like it might be his wife, letting her know he would be late. Bree also heard a mumbled comment about her and Linda, described as either “baked outta’ their minds” or “took some serious blows to the head.” After he hung up, there was an awkward period of him repeatedly asking them if they wanted water. They did not.
He made several trips back to his truck; Bree suspected he was nervous, probably his first accident assist. Over the next forty minutes, she glanced periodically up at Linda, who always looked back and smiled. The only thing Linda said was, “When I saw that gray fucker going after you, I thought you were a goner,” before falling silent, a pensive look on her bruised face.
Once the ambulance and police arrived, everything became more hectic and, as they were loaded into the back, it was as if the surreal accident became more real. Everything else faded, like sand sifting through fingers. Doctors asked questions, police made inquiries, and they were separated at one point while instructed to retell the incident. Neither woman mentioned an alien. It was just an overcorrected swerve and not wearing a driver’s seatbelt that caused all the problems. It wasn’t until they had a moment alone in the emergency room that they could quickly whisper their individual tellings of it all. Surprisingly, their stories lined up. Bree felt a little better for a brief moment, then Linda suddenly started and clutched a passing nurse’s arm, whispering, “Is the gray thing here? Can you see it?” That resulted in a gentle prying off her arm and a report to the doctor that the patient seemed to be experiencing hallucinations. The good doctor gently explained the possible side effects of Linda’s concussion to her, for the third time, it seemed, and this time she understood. They didn’t want to hear it. Surprisingly, their injuries had not been serious, and Bree was released, with Linda needing an overnight observation.
Before drifting apart over the next two years, as friends with only one truly interesting experience between them tend to do, Bree returned to the ranch several times, searching for answers. Linda did not, and Tim disappeared completely. Bree didn’t expect him to hang around after hearing about the accident. The women’s texts and emails slowed, then stopped. Linda was busy with her life, family, and new grandbabies. Bree didn’t have the courage to face Linda, having no idea if she wanted to hear about the recent experiences Bree had during those solo visits. They didn’t come close to what they had gone through together, just more lights, sleep disturbances, and general anxiety.
Bree knew that to find out if she still had someone in her life who would be a touchstone, a support, and be there to discover all the wonders she believed were coming, she would have to speak the words. She would have to trust. But once spoken, they would become a rung bell. They couldn’t be pulled back, and she had no idea if the result would help or harm Linda. Weirdly she felt very protective of the bouncy, chatty older woman, who, at times, could be so childlike. Bree had been the one to take Linda to the ranch, then cause a major head injury. Bree understood it might be a “one and done” for someone like Linda, so she continued a lifelong pattern of avoiding any serious human connection because people lie, often out of kindness. She couldn’t bear for Linda to be another disappointment, no matter how lonely Bree’s life had become.
She watched the skies, often at night, and kept abreast of all the new and old news popping up on social media and news links. Some nights, she wondered if Linda was also looking up. If that were so, she concluded that, like her, Linda was probably unsure whether she was hoping for something to happen, or simply afraid.